Chicago Public Schools started the year with only 38 more school social workers than last year, far short of a dramatic increase district leaders had promised, new data shows.
The head of the school system announced plans this summer to hire 160 more social workers at a cost of $20 million. These new social workers were to be assigned to particular schools full time — a rarity in CPS — and would help with special education students, as well as serve the needs of the general population. This came after years of cutting back services for special needs students.
Matt Lyons, CPS chief of talent development, said the district is still hiring.
“We are just not there at this time,” he said, adding that he hopes to eventually become fully staffed. The school district has been hampered by a shortage of available social workers, he said.
But even with the vacancies, Lyons said CPS has more social workers now than it has in years, and 38 additional social workers represent a 10 percent increase over last year. “I do think it is meaningful,” he said.
But when the announcement was made, parent advocates and the teachers union immediately raised some questions about how committed the district was to getting these social workers in place. The announcement came just weeks after a Chicago Tribune series exposed a sexual abuse scandal inside the school district.
With Mayor Rahm Emanuel still considering a run for a third term, they suggested that it was a politically motivated move as he and Jackson tried to mend the school district’s damaged reputation.
They also suggested that it was disingenuous because school district leaders likely knew they couldn’t fill these position. They noted how hard it would be to find school social workers still looking for work in the summer when most hiring is done in the spring.
In a speech at the City Club of Chicago where she announced the additional social workers, CPS CEO Janice Jackson said she wanted more schools to have their own social workers so that students who experienced trauma would have someone to turn to.
To applause, Jackson told civic leaders: “I have heard from teachers over and over again that they can’t be all things and that they need more support. Today, it gives me great honor and it is a privilege to be able to provide more support for them so they can continue to do great work for children.”
At the time, she said she planned to make these additional positions part of the school system’s budget over the long term. But this year, CPS officials told WBEZ they planned to pay for them out of the contingency budget, which is typically used for unexpected expenses.